Despite losing the first frame to his unranked 38-year-old opponent, O’Sullivan appeared to show few ill effects as he rattled in back-to-back centuries for a 6-1 win and set up a Sunday clash with fellow veteran Ken Doherty.
But afterwards O’Sullivan said he felt “absolutely awful” and at one stage became concerned he might have to curtail his quest to become the first player to win the title seven times.
“At one point today I wondered if I was going to get through it,” said O’Sullivan. “I couldn’t focus on the balls – I just had to grind it out really and wait and see what happened. It felt like one of the hardest matches I’ve ever had to play. Every time I was on a shot I felt like I was going to feather the white because I couldn’t focus. Every shot felt like a black ball in a world final.”
O’Sullivan heaped praise on Simmonds, who has a job building carbon fibre body parts for cars, and who evidently does not fit his definition of one of the “numpties” whom he has frequently derided.
“Luke is better than most people on the tour,” insisted O’Sullivan. “I can’t believe he’s a factory worker and he doesn’t play much, because he’s got more shots than 80 per cent of the players on the tour.”
Certainly Simmonds showed few signs of nerves, winning a scrappy opening frame with a 56 break, and he had his chances in the second as O’Sullivan evidently struggled to get into his stride.
Still there was an air of inevitability about the conclusion and despite his discomfort O’Sullivan still managed back-to-back breaks of 118 and 112 – after a near-miss on 97 in the fourth frame – to take his career ton tally up to 980.
The biggest casualty of the first round came after midnight, when world No 1 Mark Selby lost 6-3 to James Cahill.
Sheffield’s Adam Duffy suffered a 6-2 first-round exit to world champion Mark Williams last night.
Duffy lost the opening frame, but levelled and should have gone 2-1 in front but Williams clawed back a 52-0 deficit in frame three. His 66 was one of five breaks of over 50 during the match.
The Welshman reeled off the next three frames – 29-year-old Duffy responded with a defiant 97 to make it 5-2 – before Williams clinched victory.
Fellow Yorkshireman Ashley Hugill suffered a final-frame 6-5 defeat to Hossein Vafaei.
The Sheffield-based cueman, originally from Melbourne near York, had dragged the scores level at 5-5 after trailing 5-3.
But the 24-year-old was unable to clinch victory, as Iran’s Vafaei secured a second-round spot.
Leeds’s Peter Lines lost to Rory McLeod 6-3 in a late-night finish.
Ticket sales for this year’s UK Championship have already smashed all previous records, with nine days of the tournament at the York Barbican still to run.
Over 12,000 tickets have already been sold for the event, which is an increase of more than 10 per cent on last year. The final weekend on December 8 and 9 is virtually sold out.
A spokesman for World Snooker said: “Every year we come to York our ticket sales grow and grow and we are thrilled to see the extent of support this time.
“Many of the players have commented on how strong the crowds are even in the pre-televised stages and this generates a fantastic atmosphere.
“Many fans come back year after year and then new supporters come along to find out about the unique experience of watching live snooker.
“The Barbican has really become the home of the Betway UK Championship and we hope to keep coming back for many years to come for one of our Triple Crown events.”
For details visit www.worldsnooker.com/tickets or call 0844 854 2757.